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Stranded by volcanic ash, landing on a feather bed

LONDON — Never have blue skies brought less joy to visitors in England than these last five days spent grounded by an Icelandic ash cloud.

Balmy and bright honestly don't do it justice. If it weren't for the families sleeping in airport lounges on the continent and sick kids waiting for donor organs, we'd all be downright giddy. But the reason the weather is so fine is the same reason thousands of travelers, myself included, are not back at work this morning.

I was at a conference in Oxford when the unpronounceable volcano blew. The Skoll World Forum had gathered 800 social entrepreneurs from around the world to talk about solving problems as whopping as poverty, hunger, illiteracy and disease. Social entrepreneurs form a special subset of Type A personalities. Impatient, innovative and persistent, they spend their lives in airplanes, traveling between the places where the problems are worst and the places where the means to solve them are greatest. They are used to finding ways around obstructions. They spend zero time debating climate change science; they're focused on solutions.

A meteorological crisis brought them to a standstill.

As the news made its way through the attendees Thursday, bouncing from BlackBerry to iPhone, you could hear an almost mocking cockiness: A volcano! C'mon, there's no way this will last.

But by Sunday night, more than a few hundred of the strandees were still in London, many of us holding reservations on flights days in the future that might never take off. So we did the only thing that seemed sensible: We got together again, hoping to mine some meaning from the volcanic mess.

About 150 people convened at the Hub, a renovated industrial building turned high-tech meeting place next to King's Cross train station. With a day of planning, some of the Skoll forum participants had gotten together with the people from TEDx London, the offshoot of the celebrated TED speakers forums, to create something they called TEDxVOLCANO. They pulled together a dozen speakers, including Larry Brilliant, the former director of Google's philanthropic arm; Jim Berk, CEO of Participant Media (producers of An Inconvenient Truth and Food, Inc.); Jeff Skoll (first president of eBay and founder of the Skoll Foundation); and Elizabeth Lindsey, a filmmaker for National Geographic.

Over the weekend, the prevailing belief that we could beat the volcano had morphed into a Zen-like acceptance. So we can't control our altitude? Then we'll just have to adjust our attitude.

We heard a lot about using this serendipitous opportunity to alter our normal ways of doing things. Break the paradigms. "It takes a volcano to make a village," said Cara Mertes, director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program. "Turn me into we," we were urged. Privately, I wondered how many of us would have given up a seat on the next flight out for the person sitting next to us.

Frankly, this ordeal hasn't been that hard for me. Unlike the families stuck between hotel and home, I landed in a feather bed. My aunt and uncle set me up in a guest room with WiFi and made a place for me at the dining table.

When your quality of life has improved, it's much harder to view the situation as a crisis. Perhaps I really was destined to be here, to take this moment to contemplate how I intend to solve the monumental challenges set before me at Oxford. Then I check my e-mail and I remember my wife, who is wrangling three boys alone at home.

I could probably do all that contemplating just as easily stateside.

Today is Day Six, by which time after Sept. 11, economic realities had trumped security concerns and we were back aloft. In 2001, I returned to Florida by train from New York City — an option not available to me now. My best escape route is a series of trains, ferries and planes that would take me through France, Spain, Morocco and Mexico. Meanwhile, the chairman of British Airways returned safely from a test flight aboard a 747 Sunday — no horror stories of ash-fouled engines. I feel a strong case of "ash denial" coming on. The Labour government, seriously fearful of defeat at the polls in early May, has begun plans to send the Navy to collect citizens stranded on the continent. There are votes at stake. Where is my bailout plan, I ask.

Peter Greenberg, the travel editor of CBS, took the microphone Sunday to assure us that no one is leaving any time soon. "So eat the cheese," Greenberg said, citing the famous advice to the rat in the trap. "You're not going anywhere."

Got to go. I'm being called for lunch.

Bill Duryea is the temporary London bureau chief of the Times. He can be reached at bduryea@sptimes.com.

Stranded by volcanic ash, landing on a feather bed 04/19/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 19, 2010 10:48pm]
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